Thousands of residents from 650 London flats were evacuated Saturday due to fire safety fears in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but dozens refused to leave their homes, according to local officials.
Four of the five Chalcots Estate towers in Camden, north London, were deemed unsafe after they were found to use cladding similar to that on Grenfell, widely blamed for the rapid spread of the massive blaze last week.
Some 34 high-rise buildings in 17 local authorities in England have already failed urgent fire tests conducted after Grenfell, the government announced Saturday, raising fears that thousands more may need to leave their homes.
Around 4,000 residents from all five Chalcots towers were initially evacuated, but one of the five was deemed safe and residents allowed to return.
Evacuated residents faced chaos, with temporary accommodation offered in a local leisure center and hotels, but some refused to move.
Camden Council leader Georgia Gould told BBC News that 83 residents had refused to leave, adding the situation “will become a matter for the fire service”.
Camden council is the first to evacuate its tower blocks after the Grenfell fire, which is believed to have killed at least 79 people. Police have consistently said the death toll is expected to rise.
Councils across the country have been urgently checking tower blocks for any material that could have helped the fire spread through the 24-story Kensington block. More than a dozen buildings in nine local authorities have so far been identified as having been fitted with similar cladding or insulation to Grenfell.
Outside one of the leisure centers, evacuees accused the authorities of sowing “panic”.
Speaking as she waited for a taxi at 4 am on Saturday, Zega Ghebre, 42, who has lived in one of the evacuated Camden blocks for two years, said: “It’s unbelievable, hard to describe. We were just told, no warnings, no nothing. I’ve got three children, 11-year-old, nine years old and one and a half. We couldn’t pack anything because we didn’t know where we are going, but hopefully we will get back and have a chance.
“We have been offered a hotel in Wembley now. Hopefully it won’t be long. If I’m there for weeks I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it, it’s too far away. The thing that makes me angry is that we watched the news, we tried to evacuate and they sent us back, they said they were only taking Taplow.
“We asked again and again and they gave us all different reasons. We were told ‘There’s nothing to worry about, you’re not going to evacuate’. It’s hard to trust anyone now, because if they come and tell me something, we won’t know. It’s hard who to trust, who to believe.”
Peter Bertram, 94, who served with the Royal Air Force in the second world war and has lived on the estate for 46 years said it felt terrible to leave his home in Bray Tower.
“It was a rush, I didn’t know anything. My neighbor told me ‘get this and that’. It happened so quick, I don’t have the energy for that now. It’s an experience, but it’s getting settled in again though,” he said.
“I’ve got all my medication and I’ve got some clothes. They reckon I can go back to the flat again tomorrow, because I’ve got some more medication to get.
“It was a shock really, it happened so quick. I’ll just have to accept it now. It will be three or four weeks [until I can go back]. I don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s the trouble. Everybody’s been good, they’ve been helpful.”
Meanwhile, Theresa May has said her “thoughts are with the residents” being evacuated from the five Camden Tower blocks, adding that the government is supporting local authorities to ensure those evacuating have somewhere to stay.
The Prime Minister who is currently in Brussels for Brexit negotiations took to Twitter to express her sympathies.
“My thoughts are with residents being evacuated in Camden while their homes are made safe tonight,” she said via her official UK Prime Minister account.
“We will work with and support the emergency services and relevant authorities to safeguard the public.”
She added that she has asked Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to keep her regularly updated and “ensure we are offering every support we can to residents & those working onsite.”